Labour launched its European and local election campaign in the South West with a warning about UK Independence Party (UKIP) policies on maternity pay and charges for visiting a GP.
Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Hilary Benn visited Exeter to officially launch the party’s manifesto, including a raft of housing reforms and a stand-out policy on rent controls.
Mr Benn, who was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs under the previous Labour Government, said the party’s cost-of-living contract was as relevant to voters in rural areas as much as in its metropolitan heartland.
However, he also hit out at UKIP’s campaign and claimed Nigel Farage “only wants to talk about one thing, which is Europe”.
“He certainly doesn’t want to talk about the other UKIP policies like charging people to go to see a GP and cutting maternity pay,” he told the Western Morning News.
“The more people discover about Mr Farage and what UKIP stands for the less attractive it will seem.”
Press spokesman and one of UKIP’s six candidates for the South West, Gawain Towler rejected the claims as “absolute junk”, accusing Labour of distributing “fake election attack documents” and said the party was taking legal advice on how to proceed.
Mr Towler said they had not settled on a policy on either issue, though he claimed the status quo was “not acceptable” for small firms.
In respect of changes to maternity pay, he added: “Small and medium businesses fall under the same rules under employment law as big firms like Nissan and Unilever and are disproportionately hit.
“The growth in the economy comes from small firms and this could be devastating if you own a chip shop and three girls got pregnant at the same time.
“There are two ways to deal with it – it could be we give them a bye or it may be if you employ less than 10 people then the Government steps in.”
Labour failed to win a single seat in the last EU election in 2009, is currently trailing UKIP in several opinion polls and faces the prospect of finishing behind the Eurosceptic party after polling day on May 22.
Prior to Mr Benn’s visit, leader Ed Miliband unveiled plans to cap private sector rent rises, ban letting agents charging tenants fees and introduce three-year tenancies.
The Opposition leader said housing costs were “one of the biggest causes of the cost of living crisis” and warned that increasing numbers face “terrible insecurity” at the hands of unscrupulous landlords.
Conservative chairman Grant Shapps compared the rent shake up to policies favoured by Venezuelan Socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
The Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors (RICS” said “arbitrary caps are not a solution” to the so-called “generation rent” crisis.
Mr Benn, speaking at a proposed housing development in Exeter’s Pinhoe, repeated Labour’s pledge to offer a referendum on leaving Europe if further powers are set to be transferred. “You have to be straight with people - it would be a profound mistake to leave the European Union for people across the South West - that’s our view.”